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Animal Law, Animal Welfare, Animal Welfare Act 1999

Tougher Penalties Proposed for Wilful Ill-Treatment of Animals

National Party MP, Simon Bridges, has drafted a private member’s bill to increase the maximum penalty for wilful ill treatment of animals from three years imprisonment to five years.

As always in public discourse, the primary justification for this increase of the sanction is that abuse of animals leads to – or is at least an early indicator of – violence against humans.

It is encouraging to see these issues raised in Parliament and the mainstream media but this call for tougher penalties highlights a number of the shortcomings of the law around animal cruelty. Namely: That sentences are so far short of the current maximum that an increase will be largely academic; the fact that the sanction is criminal actually militates against its implementation; and, the real problem is with a distinct lack of enforcement and prosecutions.David Jones QC, one of the SPCA’s Pro Bono Panel of Prosecutors, has written in the Auckland District Law Society newsletter that an increase in these sentences will lead to longer sentences. But this is hard to see when sentences are as light as they are at present.

Just a couple of recent examples:

  • Beating a dog with a metal pole and then strangling it to death earned the perpetrator a four month jail term.
  • In a case which was widely reported this year, Peter James Cooksley shot a cat through the abdomen with a crossbow when he caught it eating chicken he had left out on his kitchen bench. The cat was found some time later, still alive, and died after surgery. He was fined $500. Despite the SPCA prosecutor’s request that an order be made for the destruction of the weapon, Cooksley was also allowed to keep the crossbow; District Court Judge Blackie held that it was needed for ‘legitimate hunting purposes’.

In the ten years the the Animal Welfare Act has been in force, the longest sentence imposed for its most serious offence is a twelve month jail sentence which was subsequently reduced to ten months. Given this, it is difficult to see how lifting a maximum sentence from over three times that which has ever been imposed to five times more is going to make any real difference to the punishments that are actually meted out.

Another difficulty in this area of the law is the fact that the sanctions are criminal. While ‘getting tough on crime’ makes for great rhetoric, judges appear to be loath to impose a prison term and its attendant consequences for a crime committed against ‘just’ an animal. This is a case where formulating a tougher sanction makes it less likely to be imposed when it is seen to be disproportionate to the harm caused.

Ultimately, the real problem in New Zealand is very limited capacity for enforcement of welfare laws. The police rarely bother with animal offences and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – which focuses almost exclusively on the agricultural sector – has only seven inspectors to cover the entire country.

This leaves the bulk of prosecutions to the SPCA which is entirely privately funded. The Auckland SPCA run about 40 prosecutions per year which can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 each. If the government were truly committed to sending out a message that animal abuse is unacceptable, they could pick up – or at least contribute to – this tab of $400,000 to $600,000 per year. Instead, we have a proposal that is certainly well-intentioned, sounds impressive, plays well in the press, but achieves very little, and costs the government nothing.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


6 thoughts on “Tougher Penalties Proposed for Wilful Ill-Treatment of Animals

  1. I mentioned this issue on the last episode of my podcast, Coexisting With Nonhuman Animals. http://coexistingwithnonhumananimals.blogspot.com/2010/01/episode-13-vegetarians-selling-meat.html

    My ideas are that we already have “over stocked” prisons, and increasing the MAXIMUM time from 3 to 5 years will only cost the taxpayer more money. Going with figures of very close to $92,000 a year to house inmates, then a 5 year stint, although unlikely, ends up costing essentially half a million NZD. And for what? It cannot bring an animal back to life, many inmates go on to re offend within 5 years of release…its just a big cost to appear to be doing SOMETHING for animal lovers.

    I think the best way to help animals right now is to promote Veganism,or nonviolence towards animals, so thats what I do.

    Posted by Jordan Wyatt | 5 January 2010, 9:32 pm
  2. HI Jordan, I kinda agree. Punishment is revenge, the tragedy has already been committed. We need to teach children not to hurt animals in the first place, and this includes buying their flesh for consumption. Its a shame the Greens are also part of the problem, promoting animal welfare rather than animal rights.
    I cant support a party that supports animal exploitation.

    Posted by AaronC | 9 January 2010, 9:45 pm
  3. Most of our contributors here at The Solution are Abolitionist, or some variety of Animal Rightist in outlook. However, the current legal framework in New Zealand is – as the title of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 would suggest – based around an idea of animal welfare. In a legal or Parliamentary context refusing to engage with this model at all consigns one to silence or irrelevance.

    Personally, I agree with Jordan that over-criminalisation is a problem in New Zealand and if this proposed law change were going to mean an actual increase in jail-time that would be a real concern. My real issue with this rhetoric is that it is about the appearance of doing something about animal abuse which distracts from more effective changes that could be made and focuses on punishment rather than prevention.

    Aaron, to reiterate a point made above, I think the Greens are doing what they can within the Parliamentary context. As long as the AWA is in force, the welfare framework is what we have to work with. There’s a lot of work to be done within that framework and if we could hold the various agencies and industries to the normative standards of the Act as it is, that would be a significant improvement.

    All that said, education is important, comment is important, promoting veganism is really important. We need to come at this thing from all angles.

    Posted by Vernon Tava | 14 January 2010, 8:52 pm


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